Community Engagement, Workforce Development, and the Oboe

This post was originally published as a monthly reflection by Future Ready with the Library cohort member Hannah Buckland.

From last February through this February, I participated in the Native Community Development Institute (NCDI), an opportunity organized by the Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP). Three northern MN tribes each appointed seven-member teams, and MHP supported each team in planning a community-based project of our choice. The Leech Lake team–with representatives from K-12 education, telecom, HR, gaming, housing, planning, and the library–selected the huge task of building a workforce development center. Over the year, MHP guided our work through six in-person, two-day NCDI workshops where we learned about project management, leadership, partnerships, policy advocacy, and community engagement. When I first read the call for Future Ready applicants, I immediately connected these two projects.

Future Ready has us viewing community engagement from the perspective of librarians; however, for a sliver of time each week, I’m not a librarian but rather a person living in Bemidji, Minnesota. During this time, personally, community engagement happens through music, specifically through playing the oboe in a community concert band. When I first began playing at age ten, a band director told me that to form a proper embouchure, I should whisper the word “home” and close my mouth around the reed just as I reached the M sound, lips curling softly over teeth. I spent years teaching myself oboe, sitting on my bedroom floor with method books (ILL-ed through my public library before I knew what ILL was), awkwardly and repeatedly whispering “home” until muscle memory finally took hold. After high school band ended, I joined my first community band and have found one everywhere I’ve lived since. Without music, I’m not sure how I would create my sense of community, of home.

The past year of NCDI centered around this sense of fostering community as our shared vision brought us together and drove our work: In September, we pushed the tribal council to designate land for a workforce center. In October, we held a half-day summit to get tribal employers talking about their workforce needs. (Over 70 people attended! We only planned for 35! It was thrilling!) In November, we started a preliminary grant application. But in December, everything abruptly changed: Our team leader moved away with little warning. The rest of us continued meeting, but no one stood up as a new leader. Gradually, we became less productive.

The final NCDI workshop was February 7 & 8. Only two of us attended, and everyone else cited “work is busy” as their excuse. It was phenomenally discouraging. After I valiantly did not cry while explaining everything to an MHP adviser, she replied, “With projects like this, it’s sometimes hard for people to tell the difference between being interested in the outcome and being committed to the heavy lifting.” I appreciated this. Delineating interest from commitment can hurt. It’s an ethical struggle to look at a project like this workforce center–in a community where unemployment hovers around 40% for tribal members–and say, “People need this outcome, but I cannot prioritize the work.” However, in large-scale projects like this, you need both: people who are interested in the outcome, and people who are committed to the work. When one group stagnates, the other is there to push them forward. But this kind of commitment is often harder to find, especially in rural communities where everyone’s individual job feels more like twelve jobs bundled together.

photo of people playing oboe in a bandCommunity band is simple. We’re not committed like a world-class symphony and will never receive paychecks for our efforts. We’re amateurs. We don’t even audition. We are educators and office managers and healthcare professionals and government employees and veterans and college students. The other oboist boards horses, and the clarinetist to her left works in HR. That word to describe us–amateurs–has Latin roots: amare; to love. We participate in community band because we love music, because we love our community. Being interested in music rather than being professionally committed to music doesn’t lessen our dedication. Through our collective interest, we still engage with our community and share a vision of making this place a little better.

I’m blathering, but what I’m trying to say is this: As I anticipate working with a community partner for Future Ready, I expect similar obstacles–the difficulty of balancing interest and commitment; the challenge of sharing both vision and workload; time constraints; uncertainty; impending exhaustion. Ultimately, we’re all amateurs here. We’re learning as we go and messing up along the way. It’s part of the challenge, and as we discussed at our meeting of cohort members in Atlanta, challenge is often tied to opportunity. When conducting a new piece in community band, our director encourages us to “play out [our] mistakes,” to mess up boldly and learn from it. No matter amateur or professional, if we never mess up difficult passages of music and then rehearse them, if we never awkwardly and repeatedly whisper the word “home” until muscle memory finally takes hold, we’ll never create anything worth hearing.

Hannah Buckland is the Director of Library Services, Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake, MN.

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